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Instrumental Structure

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So when constructing a vocal song you think about your verse, choruses, and maybe a bridge. Shuffle... rinse and repeat. Pretty structured even if you play with the structure or go non standard. You are still thinking about telling your story and the flow of it within the song. Words have meaning and the flow matters. 

 

When constructing an instrumental you could follow this same principle but I feel like it should/could be somewhat different. Could be much different. You aren't depending on words to tell your story at that point. Depending on melody and rhythm and arrangement for sure. Certainly the parts should repeat to set the hook for the listener and be enjoyable. I've tried instrumentals and while they are musical I don't think they are good as instrumentals per say. Would like to get a little better at that and I'm thinking out loud here (while typing). 

 

So would you just follow the lyrical song model like you would a lyrical song? AABA, ABAB etc... A is one melody/rhythm/arrangement and B is another and so on and so forth. Feels like the same type of approach. Part of me feels like an instrumental should be more freeing than just copying over a typical song structure though. Of course it all has to work and be interesting to the ear and it only works until it doesn't. Most of the instrumentals I have tried kind of mimic a lyrical song structure. 

 

Here's an example of an instrumental I created that follows a lyrical song structure in arrangement. Melodically I think I am all over the place though trying to tell a story. 

 

 

 

 

Outside of structure I know the big thing is to be strong on a melody instrument. Something has to carry that water and I'm probably not there yet but...   Try there is no try... Do! ...and so I must. 

 

Anyone interested in instrumental construction? Do you have examples and how did you structure your songs? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scotto, you wrote: ‘Part of me feels like an instrumental should be more freeing than just copying over a typical song structure though.’

 

I’d say your instinct is correct.

 

I occasionally submit songs and instrumentals (written by my co-writer) to international competitions. 

 

I remember one contest manager advising me to make sure that any instrumental I submit must tell a story of its own, and not simply be the backing track to a song.  (Though I suppose you could still be quite free even if you were following a typical song structure.)

 

I’m paraphrasing here, but she said that instrumentals need to have their own melodic hooks and tricks, periods of action and of rest, to snag listeners and keep them hanging on. 

 

I passed this advice on to my co-writer, Billy. He then took the backing tracks to two of our songs, and pimped them, adding extra peaks and troughs – dynamics – and additional melodic hooks. The first one I submitted was a finalist (one of five) in the instrumental category, and won the popular vote and the cash prize, and, the following year, the second won first prize in the instrumental category.

 

So, in at least these two instances, the advice seemed to work. :)

 

Your own track has plenty of dynamics. Infectious for sure! I'm wondering whether a brief switch from very busy might make an interesting change and give the listener's ears a rest for a moment before picking up again with a new impetus. For example, there's a section in about the middle where the riff is repeated several times. 

 

I hope you don't mind a lyricist putting in her tuppence worth in your thread. :)

 

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Posted (edited)

That's a real toe tapper!  I enjoyed it. 

 

When I think about some of the genre's that are commonly instrumental (classical, jazz, fiddle tunes) I think that a common approach is to have a strong lead melody at least in the beginning and the ending of the song so a basic musical idea is communicated in the beginning and it resolves again at the end.  In the middle, however there could be an improvisation of the original melody, different parts related to the melody (or bridges, pre chorus parts, etc), and occasionally a different time signature to shake things up a bit.

 

I've written only one instrumental that I consider complete and the pattern is AABBCCDDAABBCC.  I consider it kind of an "irish fiddle tune" but I play mandolin on it, and I'm accompanied by three others on banjo, guitar and percussion.  The A, B and D part are all 4/4 time.  The C is a fast tempo 3/4 time and I think it's half the measures of the A, B, and D parts (I'm not sure as I play by ear and do not write music).  The lead instrument on the A and B parts are first the mandolin and then the banjo. 

 

Not sure that this adds much to the thread you've started, but at least it's another example!

 

EDIT:  I will add that when we play my song out, we play it as part of a 2 song medley--the other song being a cover, Steve Earle's "Galway Girl".  This is partly because I've found that the song is too short unless we introduced more lead instruments for more rounds of the song, or broke into improvisation.  The song would probably work very well for a contra dance (popular in these parts), but at an open mic setting (which is usually where I play), I felt it would be more interesting pairing it up with another song with vocals.  The songs, though different, complement each other well.  We bookend the Steve Earle song with my song, and it's an interesting effect having a vocal part set up in the middle.

Edited by Short Order Kook
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57 minutes ago, DonnaMarilyn said:

Scotto, you wrote: ‘Part of me feels like an instrumental should be more freeing than just copying over a typical song structure though.’

 

I’d say your instinct is correct.

 

I occasionally submit songs and instrumentals to international competitions. 

 

I remember one contest manager advising me to make sure that any instrumental I submit must tell a story of its own, and not simply be the backing track to a song.  (Though I suppose you could still be quite free even if you were following a typical song structure.)

 

I’m paraphrasing here, but she said that instrumentals need to have their own melodic hooks and tricks, periods of action and of rest, to snag listeners and keep them hanging on. 

 

I passed this advice on to my co-writer, Billy. He then took the backing tracks to two of our songs, and pimped them, adding extra peaks and troughs – dynamics – and additional melodic hooks. The first one I submitted was a finalist (one of five) in the instrumental category, and won the popular vote and the cash prize, and, the following year, the second won first prize in the instrumental category.

 

So, in at least these two instances, the advice seemed to work. :)

 

Your own track has plenty of dynamics. Infectious for sure! I'm wondering whether a sudden, brief switch from very busy might make an interesting change and give the listener's ears a rest for a moment before beginning again with a new impetus. For example, there's a section in about the middle where the riff is repeated several times. I'll need to listen to the track again to pinpoint exactly where I mean.

 

I hope you don't mind a lyricist putting in her tuppence worth in your thread. :)

 

Not at all. By my reading you have more of a pedigree than I do as far as instrumental writing.

 

I did try and think of a story for this one but I hadn't always done that. Getting so caught up in the process and forgetting to focus on what I was actually doing. I think that is the best advice. Even though there isn't a lyric there is still potentially a message or story you are trying to tell. A progression so to speak. I'd love to hear the winners if you have them handy! Also what contest did you enter? Might be fun to consider. 

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Interesting topic & not one you see discussed much! Kudos! :)

 

Instrumentals were something I wandered into late. Began writing songs in 95...first instrumental in 2008.

For me, that first instrumental was more about solving a problem, than satisfying a desire to write one.

The problem was..."what, if anything, am I gonna do with this half-assed song I wrote back in 98?" :rolleyes:

I assume most of us have been there...that song you kinda liked that never really worked as a whole.

One day it dawned on me that I could try to create an instrumental version, so that's what I did.

For anyone interested, it's the subject of a past blog article.

The article goes into much more detail about the structure & process & contains a link to the actual song. 

In the years since, I've written a total of 4 instrumentals. As it states in the article, 2 of those were originally lyrical songs, the other 2 were not.

As you might expect, the 2 lyric tunes contain well defined melodies, the 2 created as instrumentals do not.

 

None of these 4 attempt to tell a story of any kind. 

Honestly, it never even occurred to me that they should. 

I focused more on overall feel/flow, emotional impact, likability & uniqueness.

As for the structure of the tunes, they're all fairly standard...comparable to what you'd find in a lyrical piece.

Most are deliberately shorter, because I assumed it would be difficult to hold a listener's attention without the presence of a sung lyric

 

2 of the remaining 3 songs are online. The 3rd is on my short-list to rearrange & re-record.

"Dorian Dilemma" - https://youtu.be/81HrrXBk4GQ

"Along The Way" - https://youtu.be/qQhOib5dyMo

 

Tom

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36 minutes ago, Short Order Kook said:

That's a real toe tapper!  I enjoyed it. 

 

When I think about some of the genre's that are commonly instrumental (classical, jazz, fiddle tunes) I think that a common approach is to have a strong lead melody at least in the beginning and the ending of the song so a basic musical idea is communicated in the beginning and it resolves again at the end.  In the middle, however there could be an improvisation of the original melody, different parts related to the melody (or bridges, pre chorus parts, etc), and occasionally a different time signature to shake things up a bit.

 

I've written only one instrumental that I consider complete and the pattern is AABBCCDDAABBCC.  I consider it kind of an "irish fiddle tune" but I play mandolin on it, and I'm accompanied by three others on banjo, guitar and percussion.  The A, B and D part are all 4/4 time.  The C is a fast tempo 3/4 time and I think it's half the measures of the A, B, and D parts (I'm not sure as I play by ear and do not write music).  The lead instrument on the A and B parts are first the mandolin and then the banjo. 

 

Not sure that this adds much to the thread you've started, but at least it's another example!

 

EDIT:  I will add that when we play my song out, we play it as part of a 2 song medley--the other song being a cover, Steve Earle's "Galway Girl".  This is partly because I've found that the song is too short unless we introduced more lead instruments for more rounds of the song, or broke into improvisation.  The song would probably work very well for a contra dance (popular in these parts), but at an open mic setting (which is usually where I play), I felt it would be more interesting pairing it up with another song with vocals.  The songs, though different, complement each other well.  We bookend the Steve Earle song with my song, and it's an interesting effect having a vocal part set up in the middle.

I'd love to hear that piece. Live setting is a totally different consideration for sure. Currently in my live playing life I don't have anything more than interesting intros to a song or two. We might take off on a Bluesy tear for a while as an instrumental interlude or sound check but none of that is planned. Just pick the key and go in the moment. 

 

What you describe at the top is what I think of for a pure Jazz piece. Everyone sets a melody at the start then takes turns deconstructing it and returns back to it at the end. I thought of playing with that structure as well but I worry about my ability on that one and I am not a Jazzer in any sense. I suppose it would work in any style though. 

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14 minutes ago, tunesmithth said:

Interesting topic & not one you see discussed much! Kudos! :)

 

Instrumentals were something I wandered into late. Began writing songs in 95...first instrumental in 2008.

For me, that first instrumental was more about solving a problem, than satisfying a desire to write one.

The problem was..."what, if anything, am I gonna do with this half-assed song I wrote back in 98?" :rolleyes:

I assume most of us have been there...that song you kinda liked that never really worked as a whole.

One day it dawned on me that I could try to create an instrumental version, so that's what I did.

For anyone interested, it's the subject of a past blog article.

The article goes into much more detail about the structure & process & contains a link to the actual song. 

In the years since, I've written a total of 4 instrumentals. As it states in the article, 2 of those were originally lyrical songs, the other 2 were not.

As you might expect, the 2 lyric tunes contain well defined melodies, the 2 created as instrumentals do not.

 

None of these 4 attempt to tell a story of any kind. 

Honestly, it never even occurred to me that they should. 

I focused more on overall feel/flow, emotional impact, likability & uniqueness.

As for the structure of the tunes, they're all fairly standard...comparable to what you'd find in a lyrical piece.

Most are deliberately shorter, because I assumed it would be difficult to hold a listener's attention without the presence of a sung lyric

 

2 of the remaining 3 songs are online. The 3rd is on my short-list to rearrange & re-record.

"Dorian Dilemma" - https://youtu.be/81HrrXBk4GQ

"Along The Way" - https://youtu.be/qQhOib5dyMo

 

Tom

It's got great mood changes from guitar to keyboard part at the start. The rhythm is almost a melody in and of itself which is a cool idea. Even if it doesn't intentionally tell a story I think the underpinnings of the song before it drive it that way anyway. Cool ideas. I have plenty of unfinished songs that never worked with lyrics but I never consciously made an effort to convert them by adding a melody. Or if I tried I didn't like it and scrapped the idea. Cool blog post. 

 

My idea here is to move purposefully forward and intentionally create instrumental music but Bob Ross accidents are just as valid to the conversation as we have all had plenty of those. 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 hour ago, Scotto said:

I'd love to hear that piece. Live setting is a totally different consideration for sure. Currently in my live playing life I don't have anything more than interesting intros to a song or two. We might take off on a Bluesy tear for a while as an instrumental interlude or sound check but none of that is planned. Just pick the key and go in the moment. 

 

What you describe at the top is what I think of for a pure Jazz piece. Everyone sets a melody at the start then takes turns deconstructing it and returns back to it at the end. I thought of playing with that structure as well but I worry about my ability on that one and I am not a Jazzer in any sense. I suppose it would work in any style though. 

I'll try to record it as soon as I can and post it.  I wonder if there will be any other instrumental song contests in the future?  It looks like there wasn't a lot of interest in the last one?

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On 05/06/2018 at 19:44, Scotto said:

Not at all. By my reading you have more of a pedigree than I do as far as instrumental writing.

 

I did try and think of a story for this one but I hadn't always done that. Getting so caught up in the process and forgetting to focus on what I was actually doing. I think that is the best advice. Even though there isn't a lyric there is still potentially a message or story you are trying to tell. A progression so to speak. I'd love to hear the winners if you have them handy! Also what contest did you enter? Might be fun to consider. 

Scotto, here's the piece that won in the category in 2015. As regards genre, I'd say it's soundtrack.

I included the lyric so you could see what the song was about. You should be able to pull down the lyric under 'Read more' under the player. I was after a mood of stress, fear, tension, with a tiny 'hopeful' interlude round about where the lyrical bridge was.

'Run, Habibti, Now Run'

https://soundcloud.com/donmar-2/run-habibti-now-run-instrumental/s-fmwRo

 

This won the popular vote & cash prize ($500) in 2014. Again, soundtrack genre, or theatrical (longish).

Based on song about longing for love but afraid to take the risk. 

'A Near-Life Experience'

https://soundcloud.com/donmar-2/a-near-life-experience-instrumental/s-xaBpU

 

The contest is SongDoor. It's open for submissions from April until November, and the entry fee is only €10. Results are shared in January.

 

Here's another, though not submitted anywhere. Again, soundtrack/theatrical. Pretty dark, with a brief 'hopeful' interlude. Lyric included so you can see what the original song was about.

'The Beast of the City'

https://soundcloud.com/donmar-2/the-beast-of-the-city-instrumental/s-pFKKt

 

And I think that by 'a story of its own', the contest manager meant that the music should be such that the mood, the tempo, the melodies, the instrumentation and so on should lead the listener to be able to conjure up a scenario of her/his own. In any case, that's my interpretation.

 

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Wow @DonnaMarilyn!! Those are amazing. Definitely in a more classical style. So much like a sound track as you said. You are more qualified that I am by far and those are inspiring. I am not sure I could write something like that but it gets me thinking... and that is a good thing. Really interesting stuff as I don't hear any kind of standard song structure under there and they build and increase in intensity as they go along. very cool. 

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13 hours ago, Scotto said:

Wow @DonnaMarilyn!! Those are amazing. Definitely in a more classical style. So much like a sound track as you said. You are more qualified that I am by far and those are inspiring. I am not sure I could write something like that but it gets me thinking... and that is a good thing. Really interesting stuff as I don't hear any kind of standard song structure under there and they build and increase in intensity as they go along. very cool. 

Thank you, Scotto. I'm pleased you enjoyed them. :) My co-writer, Billy, operates on the notion of 'peaks and troughs'/tension and release. I think this is what works towards giving his instrumentals a beginning, a middle, and an end, something in the manner of a storyline even though it might not be a typical song structure. (He does the same with instrumentals in other genres - we co-write in all of them.) 

 

(That notion of tension/release is what I was referring to when I commented on your track - i.e. about rethinking the unceasing busyness throughout, and the repeated riff round about the middle. Though I realise it was designed as a samba track, and I don't suppose many 'rest' interludes would be called for. ;) Anyway, just me rambling. ;) )

 

 

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Why is a guy with a voice like yours worried about instrumentals? 😀 

 Speaking of that. Could you experiment with using your vocal abilities as an instrument? Not actually singing words or a song structure of any kind. But using your voice to create awesome sounds. If so. Wouldn’t that still be considered an instrumental? IDK? Like you say, I’m just thinking out loud. P.S. I don’t think there are enough peaks and valleys in your instrumental posted here. It feels like a straight line from beginning to end.  😀

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Hi S

 

   Sometimes I write instrumentals by mistake..lol Well...lets just say some songs I never came up with lyrics for, some of them can stand on their own melodically and could pass for being just an instrumental.😁 What is nice about doing an instrumental piece, you aren't tied into a structure or have to repeat anything if the piece doesnt need repetition. And there are so many genres to explore from, such as ambient to jazz to heavy metal soundtrack or action music. And to add to OWLR's point, Enya made a career using her layered vocals as an instrument.

    You can take more chances in writing an instrumental and as the case with me, I have used some of these ideas in actual song structures (High Water Mark and Sybil to name a few) for songs I would later write. Also in your piece you presented, you were able to stretch out instrumentally and were able to play bass lines that maybe would be considered too busy when combined with a vocal line. If anything, an instrumental is kind of an exercise in letting yourself do things that you wouldnt normally do in another setting. If anything, it sparks more creativity that you might not of thought about in a structured setting.

 

just my two cents worth

R-N-R Jim

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9 hours ago, DonnaMarilyn said:

Thank you, Scotto. I'm pleased you enjoyed them. :) My co-writer, Billy, operates on the notion of 'peaks and troughs'/tension and release. I think this is what works towards giving his instrumentals a beginning, a middle, and an end, something in the manner of a storyline even though it might not be a typical song structure. (He does the same with instrumentals in other genres - we co-write in all of them.) 

 

(That notion of tension/release is what I was referring to when I commented on your track - i.e. about rethinking the unceasing busyness throughout, and the repeated riff round about the middle. Though I realise it was designed as a samba track, and I don't suppose many 'rest' interludes would be called for. ;) Anyway, just me rambling. ;) )

 

 

No totally getting that out of this discussion. The need for more of a dynamic build and release in an instrumental. I probably have a tendency to be more of a hammer when it comes to things like this and so the Samba piece is relentless and honestly a nice quieter toned down portion would go great with the story line of love me love me not.

 

The bass is the man's melody and the guitar is the woman's by the way. The guitar has more of the melody because in my mind that is how relationships probably work anyway ;). These are great ideas and thoughts and very helpful. 

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3 hours ago, Onewholovesrock said:

Why is a guy with a voice like yours worried about instrumentals? 😀 

 Speaking of that. Could you experiment with using your vocal abilities as an instrument? Not actually singing words or a song structure of any kind. But using your voice to create awesome sounds. If so. Wouldn’t that still be considered an instrumental? IDK? Like you say, I’m just thinking out loud. P.S. I don’t think there are enough peaks and valleys in your instrumental posted here. It feels like a straight line from beginning to end.  😀

HA thanks!  

 

Honestly I end up singing cover songs for 1/2 + of the night sometimes at a 3-4 hour show and I am getting burned out vocally (and musically). We are creative with our interpretations and we have to be with our setup as it can be limiting. We always get good feedback and it is fun for sure but it'd be nice to be a better instrumentalist no matter what I do and I crave the creativity that is missing in that. 

 

Also my home situation doesn't allow for a lot of Mic time these days (noise) (Why is that weird guy singing downstairs?). I can however go down to my studio area, put on headphones, and get lost with amp SIMs, virtual instruments, and whatnot and disturb no one while not being disturbed for a while. So in thinking about starting to work on such things I realize I have only really just dabbled with instrumentals in passing and would like to get better at it. So I need to think about it and have a plan in my mind. I never had one of those for this type of thing. 

 

I am realizing that most of the stuff I have done that qualifies as instrumental is somewhat relentless like the above track. I never realized that until this thread so that is a revelation. Certainly seems simple enough and I feel kind of dumb but I can be taught... eventually! 

 

 

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2 hours ago, R-N-R Jim said:

Hi S

 

   Sometimes I write instrumentals by mistake..lol Well...lets just say some songs I never came up with lyrics for, some of them can stand on their own melodically and could pass for being just an instrumental.😁 What is nice about doing an instrumental piece, you aren't tied into a structure or have to repeat anything if the piece doesnt need repetition. And there are so many genres to explore from, such as ambient to jazz to heavy metal soundtrack or action music. And to add to OWLR's point, Enya made a career using her layered vocals as an instrument.

    You can take more chances in writing an instrumental and as the case with me, I have used some of these ideas in actual song structures (High Water Mark and Sybil to name a few) for songs I would later write. Also in your piece you presented, you were able to stretch out instrumentally and were able to play bass lines that maybe would be considered too busy when combined with a vocal line. If anything, an instrumental is kind of an exercise in letting yourself do things that you wouldnt normally do in another setting. If anything, it sparks more creativity that you might not of thought about in a structured setting.

 

just my two cents worth

R-N-R Jim

Yeah that is the part I find intriguing. You can stretch out and have fun with it and see where it takes you. I have written quite a few instrumentals that are happy accidents but now that I listen back to them they aren't really instrumentals. They follow a standard song structure and need extra dynamics or build to them. All tension no release so to speak. Probably an issue with any song writing really. Lots of lyrical songs don't really need as much tension and release because there is a lyric and a story but it is certainly a tool in the tool box to make any song better. Genre is wide open there. Smooth jazz to funk fusion. Well I don't think I can pull those off lol. I did read that smooth jazz tends to follow the standard song structure. So there is precedent for it. 

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As with most things, there seems to be a wide interpretation of what the term "Instrumental" means.

When I think of an instrumental song, I think of something which is written to stand alone. Not a musical creation intended to support something else (i.e. movies, TV, commercial content)

Songs like "Jessica" (Allman Brothers), "Surfing With the Alien" (Satriani) & "Town Without Pity" (Ronnie Montrose's version)

All have defined structure, all are dynamic...containing both peaks & valleys, all have strong melodic content.

Each is interesting enough on its' own to hold a listeners attention for the duration of the song.

Whenever I've created an instrumental work, that's been my objective. So when I responded to the posted question, that was the type of instrumental I had in mind.

 

Personally, I tend to place supporting instrumental music in a separate category.

That certainly doesn't make one superior to the other.

It does mean that for some, it's like comparing apples & oranges. ;)

 

Tom

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For anyone interested in examples that stray more from traditional song structure, I'd recommend "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" & "Fanfare For the Common Man".  Both are readily available on YouTube.

  • "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" (Allman Brothers) employs a less traditional structure, but still contains easily discernable melody, it's very dynamic with lots of variation in rhythmic feel. If you're going to check it out, I recommend the "Live at the Fillmore" version...very cool !
  • "Fanfare For the Common Man" (the E.L.P. SHORT version) has discernable melody & variation in feel, but isn't quite as dynamic as the Allman Brothers tune. Once it kicks in from the into, it pretty much gets up and goes for the duration of the tune.
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Surfing with the Alien is a quintessential instrumental piece and surely an example of absolute mastery of a melodic instrument. It's kind of unachievable.

 

Allman brothers are essentially the same with Jessica being powered by a legendary band and every member is a virtuoso. But we can try right lol. Half the fun of it. 

 

Surfing is a great example of build and release where as Jessica is more relentless. Everything works until it doesn't lol. 

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Re-listened to Jessica this morning on the drive in. Heard it so many times but never thought about the structure of it. Interesting that I just enjoyed it for what it was and now in dissecting it well... adds another level.

 

Follows the standard Jazz structure. Set a hook melody. Kind of a pause and then lead instruments dissect the melody and just have themselves a jam. Piano then guitar then guitar. Then it returns back to the hook melody to finish it off. 

 

Kind of cool. I think I might play with that kind of thematic structure first. 

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